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The Thing That Gets Us to the Thing: Why Halt and Catch Fire Mattered

5 minute read

One major problem with Halt and Catch Fire‘s first, and possibly last, season was what I’d call “Yeah… so?” syndrome. It asked us to invest in the struggles of its characters, frustrated in one way or another by the computer business, to create something of their own. That something, however, was just a fast, cheap IBM clone. Yeah, they’re putting everything on the line, but all they’re doing is making a knockoff. So why the hell should we care?

Halt didn’t solve all its problems over the course of 10 episodes. (The greatest was putting so much weight on Joe Macmillan’s tortured-man-with-a-secret character.) But with the finale, “1984,” and the few episodes that came before it, Halt showed that its “Yeah… so?” issue was, as they say, not a bug but a feature. It was hard to cheer for the Cardiff team releasing their knockoff because, in fact, it wasn’t something worth cheering for. And the season, closing with this episode, was about the characters’ realizing this: what they thought was the future really wasn’t.

That’s why the reveal of the Macintosh computer at the end of the penultimate episode–despite the goofy, candlelit geek-seance setting–was such a daring trick for a series to pull. It’s as if the first season of 24 had involved Jack Bauer chasing terrorists only to find in the last hour that he was beaten to his target by another, stronger Jack Bauer with laser vision and a jet pack. The Cardiff team risked their careers, relationships and freedom, and it turns out that the future of computing was already on its way–and it could speak. And it came heralded, as I noted in my initial review of the show’s pilot, by a Super Bowl ad featuring a rebel who looks a lot like Cameron:

It’s a risky thing to ask an audience to invest in a season that is largely about its chief characters embarking on a quest that’s, well, wrong–probably too risky, judging by the ratings. But it’s a shame, because Halt ended up being a revealing, if imperfect, story about creation, ambition and the costs of pursuing dreams.

In Gordon, for instance, it found a complex character whose ambition was both sympathetic and alienating; the heartbreak of failing with his and Donna’s first computer, the Symphonic, has curdled in him. For a while, the push to bring the Giant to life revives his idealistic drive to make something great. But idealism is hard, it’s tiring, and eventually it becomes more important above all that he simply not lose one more time–even if winning this time just means making a widget slightly better and quicker than the other guy’s widget.

Donna, meanwhile, initially seems like another wet-blanket wife smothering her husband’s dreams–but it turns out that they were her dreams too, that losing them cost her at least as much, on top of which she has the energy-draining responsibility of managing Gordon. For all that, their marriage still works, in the complicated, imperfect way that long-term marriages do: they still have not just a romantic spark but a creative and intellectual one. (Sue me, but Gordon’s giving her the cipher ring that they made together was pure nerd romance.) And it’s fitting in the end that she–the musician who was able to hear the melody in machine language–should be the one who signs on for Cameron’s early vision of what would be the actual future of computing that we know. The two women, dismissed and ignored by a male-dominated business, have hit on the next next thing, leapfrogging not just the IBM clones but the desktop itself, realizing that computers will be not just place-bound machines but a medium of travel.

Looking back, the series set all this up in its pilot episode. Most blatantly, there was the very first scene in Joe’s classroom, in which he asks the students to envision computing in 10 years: Cameron is the only one who guesses that it will involve connected computing over data networks. But it’s also in the much-quoted line that Joe delivers to Gordon: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”

You could say that about Joe’s character himself: the idea of an angsty, manipulative antihero spinning webs and lighting fires while crying inside has been cloned many times in cable drama. Joe was just not an interesting take on that character, and he left the usually capable Lee Pace to spend the series posturing and preening in a way that made Joe seem not devilishly charismatic but transparently full of b.s. And yet, maybe he was also necessary: maybe, without a familiar hook like Joe’s story, AMC might never have picked up Halt and viewers might never have even given it a first look. With that entrée, the series took a stab at a story about the beginnings of a cultural era, about technology as a metaphor for art–and maybe as a kind of art in itself.

Halt‘s first season is over. With what it’s set up, I’d like to see a second, but I can understand if that doesn’t happen. I do hope, though, that we’ll see more dramas about creation rather than destruction, about the magic and pain involved in trying to build and dream and resist the easy out of cynicism. This attempt may have been a noble failure, like the Apple Newton, an early attempt at something that will later reinvent its field. Maybe Halt and Catch Fire, in the end, wasn’t the thing. But it can be the thing that gets us to the thing.

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